Today starts a multi-part series on some of my experiences as a college professor. I found an old presentation I gave in 2007 called “The Damage Wrought by Group Identity on College Campuses.” In this series, I will be breaking down that speech, providing some background information on my points, and updating my thoughts on the topics discussed.
This introduction is the first installment.
I spent 28 years of my career teaching, most of it as a tenured college English professor. And those years as a tenured college English professor were the best of years; they were the worst of years, to paraphrase a novel that used to be taught in English courses.
During the best of times, I absolutely thrived in the classroom. I was thrust into leadership positions, which I loved. The collaboration was productive and inspiring. My co-workers were my best friends. My personal writing improved. My relationships with students kept me motivated. I truly believed I would die standing in front of a chalkboard. I had found my home.
During the worst of times, I was accused of racism, my department was destroyed, my students were demoralized, I worked with liars, and the division ensured no one would work with each other.
I haven’t done much writing about my experiences in education. At the time, I probably complained more than I should have. But I was completely confused by what I was going through, and I longed to discuss it with my friends. But my friends were more confounded than I was, and found my stories difficult to believe. They lost interest, and I lost a sounding board.
One time, things got so crazy at the college that we made the front page of the LA Times. The vice president of financial services was being investigated for embezzlement or misappropriation of funds or some other such financial crime. Turned out, she had used college funds to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of electronics for her son: professional cameras, audio equipment, computers filled with editing software. And on weekends when the college was deserted? He was filming porn.
Oh, and when this particular VP was hired, it was well known that she had been fired from the same position at California State University – Northridge for financial improprieties. Of course we hired her.
I felt so vindicated with this proof, in print no less, of what was perhaps one of the more minor incidents of craziness that was happening that I brought my copy of the paper to my book club meeting, hoping someone, anyone, would take me seriously.
Those of us on the front lines had a sense that what we were witnessing was at the forefront of huge changes in academia in the United States. And now, nearly twenty years later, I can see we were exactly right.
In 2007, I was invited to make a presentation at a conference. It’s title was “The Damage Wrought by Group Identity on College Campuses.” I recently came across a recording of the talk and was surprised at how prescient it was. The main points I made were spot on. However, the examples were kid’s play compared to the outrageous examples that I could give today.
I thought I would take that speech and offer my thoughts throughout in regards to the position the country is currently in regarding education. It’s pretty long, so I will break this up into multiple segments.
Here’s the beginning of the speech:
Months ago, I was asked to submit an outline of my talk so that people in the audience could follow along with me. I would love to tell you that since submitting that outline I simply put this presentation away in a drawer, only to bring it out today. But I did not. And every time I pulled it out, I couldn’t help but tinker with it. So this may not follow the published outline exactly, but I promise you it is better having been tinkered with.
About a year ago, in my remedial English class at Los Angeles Mission College, where I am a professor of English, a young woman entered my classroom wearing a beautiful, brightly colored skirt. Without thinking, I told her how much I liked her skirt.
Imagine my surprise when at the end of the semester I was called into the department chair’s office. A racial discrimination complaint had been filed against me. You see, the woman in the skirt was black and had passed my class. And the woman who filed the complaint was Hispanic and had failed my course. That compliment served as proof that I favor blacks over Hispanics.(speech)
At this particular time, Los Angeles was experiencing a lot of Hispanic vs. Black animosity. It wasn’t surprising to hear of “riots” between the two groups breaking out on high school campuses.
At the college, it was no different. The college was comprised of 74% Hispanics. The Hispanic faculty and administration saw the black faculty, administration, and students as their enemy. Of course, there was also the drive to eliminate white faculty from the campus; the blacks, who only comprised 5% of students in 2000, were simply lumped in with the whites as being opposed to the Hispanic agenda. Of course today it would be difficult to see the blacks and white lumped together that way.
So this isn’t surprising that rather than simply claim I, as the white professor, was a racist, the student tried to make the claim that I was NOT racist against blacks, only against Hispanics.
I should note that I am extremely uncomfortable categorizing people that I personally knew like this. But there’s no other way to report what was happening.
I should also note that I am fully aware of the political ramifications of using the word “Hispanic.” The word was popularized by the Nixon administration in the 1970s and defined in 1977 to mean someone in the United States with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, or South American origin, “regardless of race.”
Activists on campus opposed the use of this term, as I was made aware early on in my career. They claimed it was a fabricated term created by the white man and the United States government. Fair enough. They wanted to be called Chicanos, which refers to someone of Mexican descent. And while Chicanos did make up the largest segment of students, there were plenty of Central and South American students as well. So for this essay, I am going to use the politically controversial term Hispanic.
Shockingly, the complaint was eventually dismissed, certainly not because justice prevailed. You just get lucky sometimes. After all, even a broken watch is right twice a day.(speech)
I cannot even begin to explain just how true this statement is. I recently saw a tweet about an investigation of a professor at a university in Canada that expressed the situation perfectly. It said, “The process is the punishment.” I was part of and witnessed so many “investigations,” every single one of which was dismissed. But not until a year or sometimes two of “investigations” into racism or sexual harassment.
So on the first day of class last semester, I announced that should anyone show up in a particularly flattering dress or with an attractive new haircut, not to expect any comment from me. I would not be providing any compliments this semester because I had learned my lesson – offering compliments is racist.(speech)
Yeah, sometimes I made my point through obvious sarcasm.
For as long as I can remember, I have been a staunch individualist, albeit a naïve one; it was instinctual rather than studied. It never occurred to me that people would want to prioritize their membership in a group to whom they are as individuals.
But one of the biggest problems in our society and on college campuses is that, indeed, one’s membership in a specific group, and ideally a group that can claim historical victimhood, has become the defining element of a person’s identity. That is why everywhere we go, we are asked to proclaim our group membership, whether on college or job applications, in surveys, on forms at the doctor’s office, or on loan applications.(speech)
I can’t believe I was bothered by this in 2007. This drive, this demand, was certainly nothing as compared to today.
This desire to identify with a group starts early in life. In every middle school across the country, kids are willing to abandon their values, their dreams, their talents, their opinions, their friends, and even their thoughts in order to promote a particular group of their peer’s ideology so as to maintain good standing within the group, whether it is the jocks, the preps, or the geeks. Everyone knows that to express a view going against the prescribed opinions of the group is to commit social suicide.
The hope is always that with maturity and life experience, they will grow out of this dependence on the group to tell them what to think, what to do, what to wear, and what to be.
But many people, especially those in academia, apparently want to live in a perpetual state of middle school.
What I want to discuss with you today is how this dependence on group identity affects life on the college campus.(speech)
That ends the introduction to the talk. For the next installment, I will cover some of the dangers of focusing on group identity in education.